Mental-health focus fuels race to the top for best PR employers

The industry's best employers are, in my view, getting better.

(©GettyImages)
(©GettyImages)

In half a decade working on the PRWeek UK Best Places to Work Awards – click here to read about this year's winners – I've noticed the quality of entries rise.

This trend has accelerated in the past year or two in particular.

From properly embracing flexible working to new systems for responding to staff concerns and offering genuine support for interns, practices that were once novel are becoming the norm for progressive employers.

Clearly, the need to attract the best talent creates a business imperative for agencies and in-house teams to raise their game. But one factor above others has, in my opinion, shaped the direction of this 'race to the top'.

In the past few years mental health has moved from being a fairly niche interest to a mainstream concern across society. This is as true in the PR industry as anywhere, given that the often high-pressure nature of working in comms can cause stress, anxiety and sometimes worse.

A survey of PR professionals by PRWeek, conducted in late 2019, found almost two-thirds said they had suffered from, or been diagnosed with, mental ill-health.

As PRWeek wrote at the time, the results suggested an apparent lack of action by employers. Fewer were encouraging staff to talk about concerns, compared to a similar survey one year earlier. Fewer also thought the industry accepts people with mental-health problems.

But many employers have acted, including numerous Best Places to Work entrants and finalists. Initiatives to tackle mental health directly – including Mental Heath First Aiders, access to counselling, and other 'wellness' schemes – are now commonplace.

The coronavirus crisis has given this a new impetus, with an increased focus on employee wellbeing in this difficult time. Several Best Places entrants said they are checking in on staff daily merely to ask how they are feeling, for example.

But beyond this, mental health concerns are encouraging employers to deal with causes of mental ill-health as well as symptoms.

I'm no psychologist, but it's clear to me that mental ill-health doesn't exist in a bubble. Tackling the root causes means looking at the entire structure of an organisation and how it affects employees. It covers a wide range of topics, from working hours and holiday allocation to client-agency relationships and line-manager support.

In my view, mental health is proving the biggest catalyst for overall workplace change. Everything is about mental health because mental health is about everything.

Take the new Training and Development category this year. It's not a topic usually associated with mental health, but judges commended the way in which the winner, Citypress, incorporated wellbeing and mental-health initiatives into its broader training provisions. For example, staff have access to an independent financial adviser as a trainer to help alleviate stress related to their personal finances.

Networks

Another notable trend in recent years has been the improvement in the quality of entries from big network agencies. This is the first year I can remember that the top two in the Large Agency category (FleishmanHillard Fishburn and BCW, respectively) are both global consultancies owned by marcomms groups.

Not long ago, most of the best workplace innovations seemed to come from mid-sized or small agencies, or larger independent shops. My impression is that, generally, while larger network agencies had some commendable initiatives, they tended to be 'add-ons' to holding company policies.

(Notable exceptions include Golin's groundbreaking 'B&B' scheme to house interns in London.)

Whether it's due to increased competition for talent, new leaders at agencies and/or holding companies, or the aforementioned new mental-health focus, a new culture of innovation is in play.

It's also noticeable that both winning and highly commended large agencies underwent mergers in recent years. Mergers provide an opportunity for a root-and-branch assessment of how agencies operate, offering licence to forge a fresh culture as a new entity. It's clearly also a spur to introduce new employment practices.

One area where even the top PR employers will (and do) admit more work is needed is that of diversity, with ethnic diversity a particular challenge across the industry.

But even here, widespread use among Best Places to Work finalists of policies such as 'blind CVs' during recruitment, and anti-bias training, suggests positive steps are being taken – again, such policies were fairly unusual just a few years ago.

It's further evidence of the quiet revolution that is changing the best PR employers for the better.

Congratulations to all the Best Places to Work winners and finalists.

John Harrington is editor of PRWeek UK

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